Seal Line Gear

Canoeing Comfort

By Cliff Jacobson

I once asked the late Verlen Kruger what he valued most on a wilderness canoe trip.

"My comfort!" he replied.
"I like a big roomy tent, a thick cushy sleeping pad and baggy clothes that don't bind when I paddle."

Verlen did not keep frequently used essentials like rain suit, wind-shell and sweater in a waterproof bag. He preferred a simple (not waterproof) zippered duffel so he could get at things fast.

"What happens if you capsize?" I asked.
"I don't tip over much," he replied with an elfish grin.

Like Verlen, I am willing to make some concessions for easy access. For example, I keep gloves, sun glasses, bug dope and other small items in a zippered thwart bag (not waterproof) that has a shoulder strap and waist-belt (for ease-of-portaging). An oiled canvas day pack (Frost River "Nessmuk") holds bulky items and is handy for hiking.

Here are some more comforting thoughts that may add to your canoeing pleasure:

  • Buy clothes big!
    Long-sleeved shirts and sweaters should be one size larger than your city clothes. Rain jackets and wind-shells should be cut full-like an Inuit winter parka-so they will fit over bulky clothes or your PFD (Technically, you should never wear anything over a PFD. But sporadic rains demand a compromise). Sleeves should be clown-like wide for ease-of-movement. Zippers should close high on the neck so cold air can't chill your chest. Most parkas are cut too wide in the throat.
    Arm-pit zippers are another peeve; I've never found one that doesn't leak in heavy rain!
    Rain pants: closures at the ankle restrict ventilation and encourage sweat.
    Sewn-in wicking liners droop below the cuff-they absorb water and catch on vegetation.

  • Always bring a wool shirt and long johns.
    Wool has a greater temperature comfort range than synthetics; it's more breathable and it doesn't develop obnoxious odors. If you think you're allergic to wool, you haven't tried ultra soft Merino wool from New Zealand.

  • Bring more hats than you think you'll need.
    I bring five hats: A broad-brimmed Tilley for sun, a wool stocking cap for cold, a Gore-Tex "souwester" for rain, an ultralight nylon ball cap for camp, and a thin wool balaclava for use as a neck warmer and sleeping helmet.

  • Bring two or three pair of gloves:
    I wear pure wool gloves with rubber dots for cold; fingerless neoprene gloves for rain, and full-fingered neoprene gloves for icy tundra trips.

  • Make a fabric cover (one side cotton, one side soft wool) for your foam sleeping pad or air mattress.
    A cover will discourage tears and keep your pad put on a slippery tent floor. Most important, it will absorb the insensible perspiration that becomes sweat against your back. On hot nights, sleep "cotton-side-up"; turn "wool-side-up" for cold. When it's too hot for any cover, sleep with your bare skin against cool cotton and use your sleeping bag as a blanket.

  • Bring a folding stool.
    Camp chores - cooking, washing dishes, etc. - go easier when you don't sit on the ground.
    My collapsible stool has a back-rest and zippered storage pouch. It sits on two parallel aluminum rails that won't sink into the ground. When not in use it folds flat and clips (with bungee cords) to my portage pack. Available from Piragis Northwoods Co. in Ely, MN. Or check local hook and bullet stores.

  • Clip your mug to a thwart:
    Loss of a drinking cup is serious on a canoe trip. I "biner" mine to a thwart so it's handy for a quick drink. It stays put in a capsize and on a portage.

  • Keep some band-aids, aspirin, liquid soap, hand cream and grooming aids in your thwart bag.
    My Rationale for this:
    1. Small cuts become infected if they're not quickly treated and the first-aid kit is often inaccessible
    2. Frequent use of hand cream will eliminate the dry, cracked skin that plagues most expeditions
    3. How do you freshen up during the day if your tooth brush is packed away?


Cliff Jacobson is a professional canoe guide and outfitter for the Science Museum of Minnesota, a wilderness canoeing consultant, and the author of more than a dozen top-selling books on camping and canoeing.

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